Archive: March 2015

1
No Contract, No Problem: HICPA Does Not Prevent Contractors From Recovery Under A Quantum Meruit Theory
2
Procurement Strategies for Major Rail Projects: International Railway Summit 2015
3
New Jersey Supreme Court Calls for More Specific Language in Arbitration Agreements: Atalese and Beyond

No Contract, No Problem: HICPA Does Not Prevent Contractors From Recovery Under A Quantum Meruit Theory

By  Jackie S. Celender and Leigh Argentieri Coogan, K&L Gates, Pittsburgh

I. HICPA Does Not Foreclose Contractors From Recovery Under A Theory Of Quantum Meruit.

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania recently held that the Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act, 73 Pa. C.S. § 517.1-517.18 (“HICPA”), does not preclude a contractor from recovering under the theory of quantum meruit in the absence of a valid and enforceable home improvement contract.  Shafer Elec. & Const. v. Mantia, 96 A.3d 989 (Pa. 2014).  The decision affirmed the holding of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, albeit on slightly different grounds.

Instead of focusing on the General Assembly’s intent (as the Superior Court of Pennsylvania did),[1] the Court relied on Durst v. Milroy General Contracting, Inc., 52 A.3d 357 (Pa. Super. 2012), holding that “the plain, unambiguous language of Section 517.7(g)[2] does not prohibit the cause of action in quantum meruit.”  Shafer Elec. & Constr., 96 A.3d at 996.  The Court noted that “[i]t is well settled at common law . . . that a party shall not be barred from bringing an action based in quantum meruit when one sounding in breach of express contract is not available,” and that “[w]hile traditional contract remedies may not be available due to the contractor’s failure to adhere to Section 517.7(a) . . . Section 517.7(g) does not contemplate the preclusion of common law equitable remedies such as quantum meruit when a party fails to comply with subsection (a).”  Id.  The Court concluded that “[i]f the General Assembly had seen it fit to modify the right of non-compliant contractors to recover in contract or quasi-contract, statutory or common law, or otherwise, it could have done so,” but did not.  Id.

The Court’s decision has important implications for contractors’ ability to use Pennsylvania’s mechanics’ lien law, 49 P.S. § 1101, et seq. as a tool in recovering unpaid amounts owed for work performed on a home improvement project.  In Pennsylvania, mechanics’ liens must be based on a contract, either express or implied.  See 49 P.S. § 1201 (defining “contractor” as one who, by contract with the owner, express or implied, erects, constructs, alters or repairs an improvement . . . or furnishes labor, skill or superintendence . . . or supplies or hauls materials, fixtures, machinery or equipment reasonably necessary for and actually used . . .”) (emphasis added).  The Court’s holding preserves a home improvement contractor’s ability to file and obtain a judgment on a mechanics’ lien based on an implied contract and in the absence of an express contract (i.e., where the contract does not comply with Section 517.7(a) of HICPA).

II. Quantum Meruit Allows Recovery Of The Value Of The Work Performed.

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania’s decision in Shafer makes clear that contractors found to have an invalid home improvement contract under HICPA are still able to recover money for work performed by bringing a quasi-contract claim under a theory of quantum meruit.  Where a contractor is successful in bringing a cause of action in quantum meruit, the contractor is entitled to recover the value of the benefit conferred on the homeowners.  See, e.g., Durst, 52 A.3d at 360 (quoting Am. & Foreign Ins. Co. v. Jerry’s Sport Ctr., Inc., 2 A.3d 526, 532 n.8 (2010) (“Quantum meruit is an equitable remedy to provide restitution for unjust enrichment in the amount of the reasonable value of services.”) (citing Black’s Law Dictionary (8th ed. 2004))); Com., Dep’t of Pub. Welfare v. UEC, Inc., 397 A.2d 779, 782 (Pa. 1979) (amount owed under a quantum meruit theory was “the reasonable value of the services performed”).  As such, contractors should be prepared to prove the value of the services performed and materials provided on the project to recover under a theory of quantum meruit.  Although the cost of materials and labor expended is normally a good proxy for the value conferred on a particular project, contractors should be mindful that under certain circumstances the value conferred may exceed the contractors’ costs and that, in those circumstances, relying on the contractors’ costs may undervalue the contractors’ quantum meruit claim.

III. The Case Law Interpreting HICPA Is Scarce.

There is a relative lack of caselaw interpreting HICPA and stating under what circumstances HICPA should apply.  The legislative history of HICPA suggests that HICPA should not apply to all home improvement projects—in particular, those involving sophisticated homeowners (i) who have a contractor that fully performed, and (ii) who have obtained all of the benefits of the contract but have not complied with the burdens (i.e., payment).[3]  Given the undeveloped nature of the caselaw interpreting HICPA, contractors attempting to recover payment for unpaid work based on a home improvement contract should (if the facts permit) assert causes of action (or facts supporting causes of action) for both breach of contract and, in the alternative, quantum meruit recovery.

 

[1] The Superior Court of Pennsylvania focused its rationale on canons of statutory construction to ascertain legislative intent.  See Shafter Elec. & Constr., 96 A.3d at 996.

[2] Section 517.7(g) “Contractor’s recovery right,” provides:

Nothing in this section shall preclude a contractor who has complied with subsection (a) from the recovery of payment for work performed based on the reasonable value of services which were requested by the owner if a court determines that it would be inequitable to deny such recovery.

Shafer Elec. & Constr., 96 A.3d at 992.

[3] The General Assembly enacted HICPA to protect vulnerable consumers, such as the elderly, infirm, and first-time homebuyers from predatory contractors (i.e., contractors that abscond with homeowners’ money without completing the work).  See 2008 Pa.H.R. Jour., No. 65 p.2292 (Statement of Representative Preston) (“If you care about the senior citizens or the young couple who is buying a first-time starter house and they want to be able to remodel it and not be able to be ripped off,” then “I am going to ask [those] members…to support the Tomlinson bill.”); 2008 Pa.H.R. Jour., No. 64, p.2199 (Statement of Representative Marsico) (the Pennsylvania Legislature’s intent behind HICPA was to “address the problems of home improvement contractors who take people’s money and leave town without doing the work”).

Procurement Strategies for Major Rail Projects: International Railway Summit 2015

London partner Matthew Smith recently attended the International Railway Summit 2015 in Barcelona. The International Railway Summit provides a meeting ground for senior decision makers from the world’s key rail operators, transport ministries and solution providers. Matthew had the opportunity to discuss the importance of risk assessment, project delivery structure, and risk allocation in rail contracts as a presenter at the conference.

To view a copy of the full presentation titled “Procurement Strategies for Major Rail Projects,” please click here.

New Jersey Supreme Court Calls for More Specific Language in Arbitration Agreements: Atalese and Beyond

By Christopher A. BarbarisiLoly G. Tor, and Christopher J. Archer, K&L Gates, Newark

Introduction:

A recent decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court in Atalese v. U.S. Legal Servs. Grp., and subsequent opinions by New Jersey’s state and federal courts applying Atalese, strongly suggest that arbitration provisions contained in contracts relating to construction and engineering projects and services will not be enforceable under New Jersey law unless they contain clear and unambiguous language signaling that the parties are surrendering their rights to pursue their claims in court.

The Atalese Decision

In its September 2014 opinion in Atalese, the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the rulings of the lower courts and held that an arbitration provision in a consumer contract was unenforceable because it “did not clearly and unambiguously signal to plaintiff that she was surrendering her right to pursue her statutory claims in court.”  Atalese v. U.S. Legal Servs. Grp., L.P., 219 N.J. 430, 99 A.3d 306 (2014).  A detailed discussion of the Supreme Court’s holding in Atalese can be found in our October 2014 Commercial Disputes Alert.

Recent Decisions Applying Atalese

In the months since Atalese, New Jersey’s state and federal courts have already cited the Supreme Court’s opinion on several occasions and, in doing so, have rejected arguments that Atalese is limited to consumer contracts and that it does not apply to contracts involving sophisticated business parties and/or parties that are represented by counsel in connection with execution of the contract.  To the contrary, New Jersey’s Courts have expanded the Atalese requirement for arbitration provisions to apply to a broad variety of contracts types:

  • Asset Purchase Agreements: In Rosenthal v. Rosenblatt, the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court applied Atalese to an arbitration provision contained in an asset purchase agreement for the sale of a dentistry practice.  See A-3753-12T2, 2014 WL 5393243, at *4 (App. Div. Oct. 24, 2014).  The court held that the arbitration provision was unenforceable because it did not contain “clear and unambiguous language that plaintiff is giving up his right to bring his claims in court or have a jury resolve the dispute,” as required by the Atalese decision, despite stating that all disputes between the parties “shall be exclusively resolved as provided herein through mediation and arbitration.”  The court specifically stated that the Atalese requirement for arbitration applied even between parties engaged in sophisticated business transactions.
  • Condominium Purchase Agreements: In Dispenziere v. Kushner Cos. (the first published opinion to apply Atalese), the Appellate Division held that an arbitration provision contained in purchase agreements between a condominium developer and condominium unit purchasers was not enforceable because, like the provision involved in Atalese, it was “devoid of any language that would inform unit buyers such as plaintiffs that they were waiving their right to seek relief in a court of law.”  438 N.J. Super. 11, 18 (App. Div. 2014).  The Appellate Division expressly rejected the position that Atalese—which only involved causes of action pursuant to the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act and the New Jersey Truth-in-Consumer Contract Warranty and Notice Act—is limited to claims for statutory violations and, instead, held that Atalese applies equally to common-law causes of action.  The Appellate Division also rejected the argument that Atalese should not apply when the parties are represented by counsel in connection with the execution of the contract.
  • Collective Bargaining Agreement: In the Appellate Division’s unpublished opinion in Kelly v. Beverage Works N.Y. Inc., the court applied Atalese to an employment discrimination case and held that an arbitration provision contained in a union employee’s collective bargain agreement (CBA) was unenforceable because the provision did not “put plaintiff on notice that he was waiving his right to try his claims in court.”  L-1285-13, 2014 WL 6675261 (App. Div. Nov. 26, 2014).  The Appellate Division specifically rejected the argument that Atalese applied only to “consumer service agreement[s],” explaining that it “discern[s] no reason to conclude that employees bound by a CBA should be charged with greater understanding of their rights than the average consumer.”

New Jersey’s federal courts have also applied Atalese on at least two occasions.  In Guidotti v. Legal Helpers Debt Resolution, the District Court of New Jersey held that an arbitration provision contained in an agreement to provide debt-adjustment services was unenforceable because it failed to advise the plaintiff of the provision’s effect and significance, “namely, that it bars [plaintiff] from seeking court relief.”  No. 11-1219, 2014 WL 6863183, *1 (D.N.J. Dec. 3, 2014).  In Ricci v. Sears Hldg. Corp., the District Court cited Atalese and held that an arbitration provision in an employment agreement containing the following language was enforceable: “[This agreement to arbitrate] constitutes a waiver of [the employee’s] right to bring the current action in a court of law and, instead, requires arbitration of [the employee’s] claims.”  No. 14-3136-RMB-JS, 2015 WL 333312, at *1, 5 (D.N.J. Jan. 23, 2015).

Moving Forward

On January 21, 2015, the defendant in Atalese filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari with the United States Supreme Court, arguing that the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision contradicts the plain language of the Federal Arbitration Act and conflicts with the decisions of other federal and state courts.  Whether the Court will grant the Petition in Atalese is questionable.  The New Jersey Supreme Court framed the question in Atalese as one of purely New Jersey contract law, and the United States Supreme Court receives approximately 10,000 petitions for a writ of certiorari each year but grants only 75–80.  For now, Atalese is binding precedent, and companies doing business in New Jersey should review their contracts to evaluate whether they comply with Atalese.  Companies should be mindful that they may face uphill battles enforcing arbitration provisions that were routinely enforced prior to Atalese.  Moreover, the opinions in Rosenthal, Dispenziere, Kelly, Guidotti, and Ricci demonstrate that courts will not limit Atalese to statutory claims, and may extend Atalese beyond consumer contracts.  Companies should also be mindful that Atalese will apply in federal court when the contract is governed by New Jersey law.

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